Carlo Javier, Columnist // Illustration by Rebekah Maurice
This year’s awards season saw movies like Roma, Black Panther, and If Beale Street Could Talk get some much-deserved recognition. And the likes of Regina King, Rami Malek and Mahershala Ali took home honours for their respective performances. It’s only natural that Steven Spielberg and his straight, old, white, male, and probably flat, ass would descend from his nearly $4 billion estate and recolonize the spotlight.
Spielberg – who is undoubtedly among the true titans of moviemaking lore – made headlines in the past month after he suggested rule changes that would inhibit Netflix and other streaming services from scoring Oscar nominations. His stance became public after Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma – a film distributed by Netflix after a three-week limited theatrical run – received 10 Academy Award nominations (winning three) this past February.
Though Spielberg himself hasn’t commented on his stance – his message was delivered by his production company, Amblin Entertainment. Media musings have pointed towards distribution models as the likely root of Spielberg’s chagrin. Films released through Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc. don’t follow the same production loops that a theatrical film traditionally does, and thus, as Spielberg said in an ITV interview last year, should be classified as a “TV Movie”, and be recognized at the Emmy Awards instead of the Academy Awards. We can also point to the “essence” and “spirit” of film as a possible factor, the cinema is an established semi-social space which prospers a shared viewing experience, whereas television is catered to more of an isolated experience.
The theories are sound, but here’s my favourite: Spielberg’s contention against Netflix is representative of the sea of change that is slowly happening in Hollywood. We can lie to each other and say this is simply a battle of distribution models or a debate about the essence of cinema, but the underlying narrative here is hard to miss: cinema as we know it, is slowly changing. On one hand, we are seeing more stories about historically marginalized groups and visible minorities. On the other, we are starting to see calls for more diversity and representation behind-the-scenes, from screenwriters, to directors, to producers.
Decision-making in cinema is seeing a slow, but steady change, and Spielberg’s gripes about Netflix is looking more like the old boys club becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the changing of the status quo.
This traditionalist vs. modernist struggle is reminiscent of the evolution of television. Gunn Enli and several scholars from the University of Oslo posited that the dawn of new media technologies is often met with hesitation and fear because “they are perceived to threaten established activities, values and institutions, as well as bring progress and improve political, cultural and social life.” This phenomenon has been observed with the introduction of commercial television as an alternative to state-sponsored programming, we also saw this when broadcasting, telecommunications, and computer technology started to coalesce with the development of digital television. More recently, we’ve started to see the effects of new technologies in the television landscape, with audiences preferring streaming services to cable and satellite platforms.
What’s happening in cinema is operating on a much deeper level. Not only are new technologies impeding the process of established norms, but the stories we’re starting to see are veering away from the repetitive Hollywood norms we’ve grown accustomed to.
So far, the critically-recognized films to come out under the Netflix banner include the aforementioned Roma, Beasts of No Nation, 13th and Mudbound. The four movies have received acclaim not only for their achievements in the art of filmmaking but also for their commentary and analyses on issues surrounding race and ethnicity.
Spielberg and Hollywood’s old boys club may be starting to hear the footsteps of a new generation and if preventative measures are enforced at the Academy, their stranglehold in the movie industry will only be prolonged.
However, looking to television suggests that regardless of whatever blockades we legislate, change is inevitable. Streaming services are here to stay and it’s not because traditional means have failed to evolve and make the most of their platforms, but it’s because the audience has changed. Change is here whether Spielberg and other gatekeepers like it or not.